Fictions of Authenticity in Indigenous Rights Discourse

This was a paper I originally wrote for an undergraduate course in 2011: Anthropology 4400E/001 Anthropological Thought, taught by Dr. Adriana Premat. While this is an old undergraduate paper I thought i might share it as it represents some of my early thought about strategic existentialism. the work I am doing currently with Autistic identity and thinking about my own role as an indigenous anthropologist builds on this. I present it here along with my series of paintings “Carolinian Gothic” which grew out of considerations of Canadian landscape painting, and identity.

The categorization of “indigenous” is a political construction. It is constructed through present discourse, and can only be projected artificially onto the past (Kenrick and Lewis 9). This should not discourage anthropologists from engaging with it, as all ethnographic work represents partial, constructed truths and some extent of generalization is necessary for communication (Clifford 9). Definitions of indigenous peoples which are based in ‘authenticity’ have been harmful to the interests of some indigenous groups. A new understanding is needed, which acknowledges both indigenous peoples histories and our contemporary circumstances. No simplified definition will be sufficient for the needs of all communities, but a shared identification growing out of international dialogue will be a powerful tool in addressing inequality.

Carolinian Gothic. A panting of a person standing in the forest. They are wearing a camoflage jacket and jeans and holding a plastic bag and a knife. A second, cloth bag has been droped, scattering orange chicken of the woods mushrooms in front of them.
Carolinian Gothic. A panting of a person standing in the forest. They are wearing a camoflage jacket and jeans and holding a plastic bag and a knife. A second, cloth bag has been droped, scattering orange chicken of the woods mushrooms in front of them.

In order to understand the significance of claims to indigenousness, some context of how those claims came to be applied to human rights advocacy is needed. The discussion of human rights saw increased visibility coming out of the Second World War, and again in the nineteen sixties. Initially the focus was on protecting the rights of individuals from infringement by the state, but this individualistic focus was soon critiqued as inadequate. The nineteen sixties and seventies saw more attention given to the ways in which the human rights of collective groups, including women, people of colour, and homosexuals, were infringed upon. There was increasing awareness that discrimination against these groups cannot be reduced to an individual level, but is embedded in structural forces. Measures to address such discrimination must address these societal issues and protect rights such as language and religion which can only be practiced as a group (Bowen 12).
Following the Second World War human rights advocates were hesitant to address issues of ethnic minorities, and were weary of claims to land based on ‘blood’ and ‘soil’ (Bowen 12; Kenrick and Lewis 4). This affected the extent to which concepts of indigenous rights gained international support. Early international policies, such as those put forward by the International Labour Organization in the 1940s, emphasized assimilation and economic ‘development’. More recent definitions of indigenous, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, have attempted to reverse the damage caused by assimilationist policies. They stress the occupation of a land base, common ancestry and there is an emphasis on continuity with the past. Significantly, recent definitions have also emphasized indigenous people’s self definition and non-dominance in relation to other political or ethnic groups (Bowen 12; Hodgson 137 and 139).

Some anthropologists have argued that the term indigenous is applicable only to the Western hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand and should not be applied to Africa or Asia. Bowen presents migration, and the absorption of some groups by others as problems preventing African groups from meeting the criteria for being indigenous (Bowen 13). This is further complicated by the history of colonialism in Africa. Resources were exploited by colonial powers, but in many modern African states there is no resident ‘colonial’ class (Hodgson 1037). Thus, in Africa, the category indigenous cannot be defined along a simple colonizer-colonized binary. Kenrick and Lewis contend that the category indigenous is still applicable, provided it is defined relationally. There are groups in Africa who have had a relationship to their land for a significant period of time, self identify as indigenous and experience marginalization (Kenrick and Lewis 6).

Both Bowen and Andrews and Buggey acknowledge that the term indigenous has been used effectively in North American and Australian contexts (Bowen 13; Andrews and Buggey 63). Bowen attributes this to the long period between the original migrations, of First Nations people to the continent and the arrival of Europeans (Bowen 13). Both arguments are predicated on assumptions that First Nations people fit the definition of indigenous as it has been defined by dominant societies. For instance Andrews and Buggey’s argument draws in part on the assumption that First Nations people relate to the land in a more holistically spiritual way than people of European ancestry, and therefore constitute distinctive ‘cultures’ (Andrews and Buggey 63).

I allow that the process of colonization has been different for First Nations peoples than it has been for African peoples. Neither do I dispute that a spiritual view of the land is central to my own identification as First Nations and is, to my understanding, common to many First Nations cosmologies. However, I will contend that definitions of indigenousness based only in fundamental differences from colonial societies and past occupation of land are no less constructed and essentializing for First Nations peoples than they are for African peoples.

Defining indigenous ‘cultures’ in terms of ‘authenticity’ erases ongoing experiences of colonization (Kenrick and Lewis 9). Indigenous peoples are not small, static groups isolated from global forces as was once believed. Claims to indignity are asserted in transnational discourses (Bowen 12). These discourses themselves are the products of colonization and anti-colonial struggles. The power relations of past, and ongoing, colonialism and neo-colonialism shape both the material resources available to indigenous peoples, and the terms upon which international discourses occur. They determine what value is assigned to knowledge and what forms of knowledge are acceptable. They have been used to trivialize indigenous forms of knowledge such as oral histories (Briggs and Sharp 644). One process by which these power relations are played out is the homogenization of indigenous identities into historically bound ‘authentic’ ‘cultures’.

Abu-Lughod describes the process of defining the self in opposition to homogenized ‘others’ as inherently violent because it involves the suppression of diverse voices in order to create artificially homogenous categories (Abu-Lughod 140). While it may be beneficial for some communities to emphasize ties to the past in resistance to assimilationist policies, any understanding of indigenous peoples which holds contemporary communities to simplistic stereotypes of pre-contact ‘authenticity’ involves violence. First Nations histories are just as complex, and filled with migration and cultural change, as the histories of Europeans. Anishinaabe oral and recorded histories, for example, tell of a physical and political migration from the east. For a time Madison Island was the religious and political centre of the nation which then dispersed westward (Benton-Banai 94-112). A restrictive definition of indigenous, based in static ideals of ‘authenticity’, would require indigenous peoples such as the Anishinaabek to tailor our histories. This would then leave claims to indigenous rights open to accusations of inauthenticity and even deceit.

An example of the requirement for indigenous people to adapt their claims to the terms stipulated by a dominant society is the American legal case Mashpee Tribe v. New Seabury et al.. The standards used to determine the Mashpee’s land claim were set by the colonial court system and required that they prove that they were the same people who occupied their traditional homeland prior to contact. (Lawrence 22). A similar precedent was set in Canada in the 1996 Van der Peet decision. The case dealt with fishing rights. The courts ruled that Aboriginal rights must be ‘distinctive and integral’ to the nation claiming them. The ‘authenticity’ of such rights is based in the pre-contact cultures of indigenous nations, not in contemporary contexts. First Nations have a burden to prove that any rights they claim existed prior to contact with Europeans (Murphy 121-126). Lawyers for the state in these and other cases frequently argued that contemporary indigenous cultures are entirely divorced from their pre-contact ancestors because of material changes in how traditional practices are performed (Lawrence 22).

The Gardener. A painting of a person walking beside train tracks in a field. They wear a blue shirt and have dark hair. They are carrying a basket of apples. A torn banner hangs from a bridge overhead. The word "Land" is barely visible. Wild ginger and blood root grow over the railway. There is a small ribbon snake in the branch of a birch tree at the left hand edge of the painting. The person is looking back over their shoulder.
The Gardener. A painting of a person walking beside train tracks in a field. They wear a blue shirt and have dark hair. They are carrying a basket of apples. A torn banner hangs from a bridge overhead. The word “Land” is barely visible. Wild ginger and blood root grow over the railway. There is a small ribbon snake in the branch of a birch tree at the left hand edge of the painting. The person is looking back over their shoulder.

This ignores that indigenous cultures were subject to change prior to ‘contact’ and that significant material changes in our traditions have occurred in the context of assimilationist policies which often outlawed or violently repressed indigenous spiritual events and practices. It is also imbalanced in its assumption that indigenous cultures are irrevocably contaminated at the time of contact, yet ‘western’ cultures are strong enough to absorb the influence of others without contamination. This assumption is seen in the need to reach back to a pre-contact past for ‘authentic’ indigenous cultures (Murphy 121-126). The result is a double bind for First Nations attempting to secure legal rights. Indigenous cultures must prove themselves not to have been too ‘primitive’ to have concepts of property rights which are recognizable to the courts. However any indication of ‘modernity’ can be used to argue that we are too assimilated to still be considered distinct ‘cultures’ (Kenrick and Lewis 8).

The controversy surrounding suggestions that early human remains, such as Kennewick man and Luzia, bear non-‘Amerindian’ ‘racial’ features further illustrates the potential for damage inherent in conceptions of ‘authenticity’ based in decent and distinctiveness. Crawford contends that such constructions of authenticity “[cut] contemporary [First Nations people] off from their heritage” (Crawford 212). She goes on to illustrate that such constructions are not neutral. They are informed by political agendas and have political consequences. In particular dispossessing First Nations people of ‘authenticity’ in order to facilitate the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, spiritual traditions and lands and to “secure a sense of place” for non-indigenous people (Crawford 212).
The suggestion that Kennewick man looked Caucasian was enough of a challenge to indigenous claims for some writers to posit that the very real contemporary genocides against First Nations people were in some way justifiable. The unscientific construction of ‘Caucasians’ and ‘Amerindians’ as discrete races precluded the possibilities of phenotypic changes over time or intermarrying as explanations for Kennewick man’s difference. Some writers concluded that the “disappearance” of the “oldest Americans” must have been genocidal in nature. Some authors suggested that Kennewick man’s existence undermined first Nations land claims. These echo earlier anthropological claims that monuments and mounds were the work of ‘white’ race, exterminated by ‘savages’ (Crawford 219).

Bodies are understood through discourse. Claims that Kennewick man, cannot be indigenous because he does not ‘look Indian’ erase the heterogeneity of First Nations people. Indigenous is not a racial category. It is a social category. Contemporary First Nations people, living with the social issues created through centuries of genocide and colonisation, pursuing higher education, adapting to contemporary world and urban environments and intermarrying with non Indigenous people are no more likely to ‘look Indian’ than Kennewick man as long as ‘Indianness’ is defined through essentialized stereotypes (Crawford 222).

While definitions of indigenous people which emphasize historically frozen ‘authenticity’ are harmful to indigenous interests, doing away with the categorization altogether is equally destructive. Presenting indigenous people as no different from dominant cultures ignores the historical and ongoing processes of dispossession which the indigenous rights movement strives to redress (Kenrick and Lewis 9). These processes create what Kenrick and Lewis describe as “extreme discrimination and dispossession” (Kenrick and Lewis 4). Erasing the differences between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples also ignores the reality that many indigenous groups are legally separated from the dominant groups around them, and are often designated different rights (Kenrick and Lewis 4).

Common arguments against the reburial of Kennewick man included emphasis on his humanity rather than his belonging to a specific race. Hidden in this language of equality is the particular history and contemporary inequalities experienced by First Nations and other indigenous peoples. As much as Kennewick man points to ties common humanity, he is the product of a history specific to North America, and is debated and understood within the context of a contemporary ‘North America’, in which indigenous people face ongoing marginalization. Universality often favours the ‘white’ dominant culture because it is the unmarked group by which ‘otherness’ is defined (Crawford 215 and 224).

These differences are not inherent, but based in the specific histories of indigenous peoples and their relationships to other nations. In Canada, for instance, the rigid distinction that exists between indigenous and non-indigenous people is in part the product of legislation. In Canada’s early history mixed marriages were common, and children were typically assumed to belong to their mother’s nation regardless of whether their ancestry was ‘mixed’ or not (Lawrence 8). ‘Racial’ difference began to be emphasized in government policy when the Canadian state began to see indigenous populations as obstacles to the acquisition of resources rather than military allies and important partners in trade (Lawrence 5).

The Gradual Enfranchisement act, passed in 1857, and its successor, the Indian Act, emphasized assimilation and were passed primarily to promote the elimination of indigenous nations as political entities. They attempted this by legally defining indigenous people as a separate group, overseen by the federal government, and making the definition of ‘Indian’ as restrictive as possible. Consequently many women who married non-indigenous people, or who married indigenous people from other communities were legally defined as non-“Indian’. Many mixed race children, as well as children whose paternity was undocumented, were also excluded from obtaining ‘Indian’ status (Green 724).
There is division within some Canadian First Nations communities as to whether women who ‘married out’ and their children should be allowed to regain status. These debates are influenced by a variety of structural factors including limited funding, already insufficient to cover community needs, and the internalization of patriarchal values in some male-dominated band councils. This is one area in which static, homogenized representations of indigenous cultures limit the terms of advocacy for indigenous rights. The objections to the Indian Act, voiced by many First Nations women, have been met with accusations of divisiveness and fears of losing the few legal protections there are for treaty rights (Green 723-729).

It is the contemporary realities of indigenous peoples which makes the categorization important. Frameworks for the protection of individual, or even collective human rights which treat indigenous people as the same as all other groups are designed to deal with the unique political and legal positions of indigenous peoples. They are also insufficient in the breadth of rights they are able to protect. Andrews and Buggey describe indigenous relationships with land as present and changing in what they describe as “cultural landscapes” (Andrews and Buggey 65).

One example they draw is that of Thcho projects in youth education. Place names and stories are inscribed on the landscape. Youth were traditionally taught this knowledge through travel. Recent projects have responded to contemporary circumstances by engaging with the land through ‘modern’ technology. The ways in which Thcho people involved in the projects describe their goals reflect transnational discourses such as nation building and human rights (Andrews and Buggey 66).
Not only do cultures undergo material change in the ways in which they relate to land, but the land itself undergoes changes. Both processes are interrelated. Changes in human cultures shape the landscape, and environmental changes influence human cultures. Under restrictive definitions of indigenous people, projects like those of the Thcho people would be deemed ‘inauthentic’. Andrews and Buggey illustrate the extent to which these projects are in fact rooted in traditional values (Andrews and Buggey 65). How then are claims to indigenousness to be evaluated? If judgements made in material culture are informed by ‘western’ biases then it would be ethnocentric to impose them unilaterally on indigenous peoples (Briggs and Sharp 662). However, uncritically accepting all claims made in the name of indigenous rights is equally undesirable. Bowen illustrates the complexities of applying indigenous rights to Africa, and Kenrick and Lewis illustrate the appropriation of indigenous rights rhetoric by nationalist and white supremacist groups (Bowen 13; Kenrick and Lewis 9).

It is because of these potential pitfalls of indigenous identities based in notions of ‘authenticity’ as defined by dominant societies that indigenous identities need to be considered on their own terms. The claim to indigenousness put forward by many indigenous groups is not one of “blood and soil” (Kenrick and Lewis 4). Instead it is a claim that indigenous cultures emerged from a relationship with their particular homelands over an extended period of time. It is a combination of the length of time and the importance of land in the cultural practices of the presence which is the basis of the claim. Lewis and Kenrick describe indigenous claims that nation such as the Cree originated from their current homelands as “a dynamic view of how culture is negotiated and transformed as it emerges in and between individuals in a particular place, rather than being a static body of unchanging values and practices to which an individual conforms” (Kenrick and Lewis 6).

In a similar vein, Minthorn, chairperson of the Umatilla nation, described his understanding of the importance of ancestors in response to the controversy surrounding Kennewick man. Regardless of whether the ancestor in question has a direct genetic lineage to the people presently living on the land, zie is to be treated with respect because zie comes from the same land with which the people maintain an ongoing relationship. This relationship is based on reciprocity and respect and includes rights such as fishing, hunting, and gathering, which are confirmed in treaties with the colonial state (Crawford 213). While the relationship Minthorn describes has its basis in a long history of occupation, its significance is in its implications for present day Umatilla people. Just as individual human rights are insufficient to protect collective expressions such as language and religion; generalized human rights are insufficient to protect the rights of indigenous people which can only exist in relationship to land.

When indigenous people make claims based on ‘authenticity’ they do so strategically in the context of the discourse already in place. While essentialism can be harmful, it can also be a powerful tool. The choice to allow their stories to be framed in language familiar to the dominant society is one faced by many minorities, and has been written about by feminist scholars such as Bell hooks. These choices are shaped by the trivialization of indigenous knowledge traditions in the dominant society (Briggs and Sharp 664-665). Some indigenous peoples chose to adopt essentialized, stereotypical presentations of their cultures in the likelihood that anything else would be ignored by the dominant society. These portrayals are not untruths concocted for the sake of deception, but emerge from indigenous people’s attempts to engage effectively with contemporary relations of power and resistance (Hodgson 1040).

Sometimes the portrayals indigenous people present of themselves adopt the binary made in orientalist discourse between ‘western’ and non-‘western’ peoples. The inequality of the categories are simply reversed so that traits attributed to non-‘western’ people are viewed as positive while those attributed to ‘western’ people are presented negatively. Abu-Lughod discusses the power reverse orientalism has in anti-colonial movements. While reverse orientalism can be useful, it comes with dangers because it does not challenge the ridged divide between ‘western’ and non-‘western’ ‘cultures’. Maintaining a perception of difference allows for the connections between the ‘west’ and ‘others ‘to remain invisible, it also denies differences within those categories (Abu-Lughod 144-145).

Andrews and Buggey’s text Authenticity in Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes is one example of the power, and dangers, of reverse orientalism. Much of the text poses a potential challenge to orientalist assumptions. The views the authors present of humans as integral parts of the world, destabilize a binary relationship between nature and culture. This could be expanded to challenge associations of non-‘westen’ or ‘oriental’ peoples with nature and ‘western’ peoples with culture. However, the authors construct a narrative in which indigenous ‘cultural’ values are set in opposition with ‘western’ values. The result is a powerful image of First Nations people with enlightened views of the land, which upon further examination, bears some unsettling similarities with stereotypes of the “noble savage” (Andrews and Buggey 63). I do not believe that the influence of such stereotypes in Andrews and Buggey’s text delegitimizes the text as a whole. While some passages seem to play into essentialized categories, others emphasise the ability of people to change over time, while maintaining ties to traditional teachings and engaging with distinct identities (Andrews and Buggey 63-64). Like all texts Authenticity in Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes is one which must be read critically.

Fictions in some form are unavoidable in the writing of ethnographies. The ways ethnographies are read and interpreted are influenced by structural forces beyond the control of any individual writer. It is impossible to claim to know the whole truth, all accounts and categorization will only ever be partial. Ethnographies from non-indigenous anthropologists are not free from bias (Clifford 25).
Anthropology’s right to represent indigenous peoples is being challenged by some indigenous groups. Leaders have spoken out encouraging First Nations people to tell our own stories, linking self-representation to self determination. Scheffel has argued that in Canada this challenge has been widely successful leading the creation of First Nations studies. The need for self representation has been recognized in Canada by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and has been linked to self-determination by First Nations leaders (Scheffel 175-177). This self representation is, and will continue to be shaped by the necessities of indigenous realties (Hodgson 1040). If anthropologists ignore the claims of indigenous peoples, or deem them inauthentic because they are fictions, they risk alienating themselves from communities they rely on.

Bliss: A Meditation on Time. A painting of a person seated on an outcropping overlooking a lake. High cliffs rise up behind them and reflect pink and golden light. The sky and lake are a rich turquoise blue. The person is eating an apple. A bike lies on its side on the beach. The canvas is split at a crevasse in the cliff face and sewn back with copper wire. Behind the torn canvas the same landscape is visible, but painted in a woodlands style. The tree in the painting has red fruit, while the same tree is just visible in the pulled back part of the canvas  is painted with its fruit still unripe.
Bliss: A Meditation on Time. A painting of a person seated on an outcropping overlooking a lake. High cliffs rise up behind them and reflect pink and golden light. The sky and lake are a rich turquoise blue. The person is eating an apple. A bike lies on its side on the beach. The canvas is split at a crevasse in the cliff face and sewn back with copper wire. Behind the torn canvas the same landscape is visible, but painted in a woodlands style. The tree in the painting has red fruit, while the same tree is just visible in the pulled back part of the canvas is painted with its fruit still unripe.

Clifford describes the ways anthropologists have been caricatured in popular media. Anthropologists are often portrayed as exploitative of indigenous knowledge or alternatively, as duped by indigenous peoples into serving political agendas. I do not believe that it is fair to portray anthropologists who engage critically with political policies as dupes of indigenous manipulations, and Clifford challenges this portrayal by showing all anthropological work as subject to political forces (Clifford 9). It is not only the agendas of indigenous groups which shape knowledge. Constructions of indigenous identity are open to the strategic use, and in some cases opportunism, of lawyers and academics as well (Kenrick and Lewis 5). As the case of Kennewick man shows, even when anthropologists attempt to maintain scientific objectivity for the benefit of all humanity, anthropological research will be used for political ends (Crawford 224).

The acknowledged need for indigenous anthropology does not imply that the role of non-indigenous anthropologists will cease completely. While indigenous voices need to be heard, and listened to, non-indigenous anthropologists do not live in a world disconnected from that of indigenous people. They too have some stake in indigenous rights movements. Goodhart argues that the focus on cultural relativism prevalent in human rights discourse has obscured the context in which this discourse has developed. While globalism is generally accepted to be a threat to human rights, it is often viewed in terms of conflict between local communities and transnational organizations. This, prevents academics from understanding the problems posed by globalization fully (Goodhart 936).
Accounts of indigenous groups by indigenous anthropologists are not inherently better or more insightful than those of non-indigenous anthropologists. Nor do the differences in indigenous anthropologists experiences of the world make it impossible for non-indigenous anthropologists to engage with their perspectives. The criteria for judging the value of ethnographic accounts has been open to change and contestation throughout the history of anthropology as a discipline. Indigenous accounts will continue to challenge the ways in which we evaluate ethnographies, but this does not necessitate that we should abandon such evaluations (Clifford 9).

Anthropology has been shifting to view ‘cultures’ previously represented as homogenous as internally diverse. Systemic forces may influence the actions of individuals, but they are never inviolable or uncontested (Clifford 2). Authors such as Abu-Lughod have contested the continued use of the concept of ‘cultures’ in favour of understandings of difference which leave room for diversity and the blurring of boundaries (Abu-Lughod 157-159). These critiques are important in overturning the perpetuation of essentialism and stereotyping. Our understanding of indigenous people must shift as well. If they do not, then important struggles to advance human rights are put at risk of derailment when diverse indigenous cultures fail to fit the impossible requirements of the category.
While utilizing the rhetoric of indigenous rights allows many marginalized communities to draw on a broad, international base for solidarity and change, no universal solution will be effective for all indigenous communities. Bowen rightly points out that some people who might have claim to indigenous identities find it more useful to build national solidarity across indigenous and non-indigenous lines as a strategy for resisting neo-colonial forces (Bowen 14). The complexities of gender, and mixed race people also cannot be ignored (Green 736-738). Self-determination, while advanced as a universal right, will need to be established according to the specific needs of the communities claiming it. For many this will mean establishing protections for indigenous rights within the framework of pre-existing nation states, not as independent indigenous nations (Hodgson 1039).

The most significant argument for the categorization’s continued use is its strategic adoption by indigenous groups. While attempting to give voice to “both sides” appears to be promote equality, in practice giving ‘equal’ space to ‘both sides’ only reproduces inequality when one group has power to shape the conversation in ways that the other does not. Because of this. Anthropologists have a responsibility to provide a platform from which non-dominant groups can be heard. This does not mean that all claims made under the banner of “indigenous rights” should be accepted uncontested. To provide such a platform challenges hegemonic representations of authenticity, but it also opens the perspectives and claims of indigenous people to critique and dispute. What we cannot do is allow fears about objectivity and authenticity to prevent us from contributing to the discourse. To attempt to remain neutral observers would be to become complacent in the perpetuation of inequality, dispossession, and violence.


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Kenrick, Justin and Jerome Lewis. “Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and the Politics of the Term
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